The Amygdala Made Me Do It

By | May 14, 2012

… It's the invasion of the Can't-Help-Yourself books.

Unlike most pop self-help books, these are about life as we know it — the one you can change, but only a little, and with a ton of work. Professor Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in economic science a decade ago, has synthesized a lifetime's research in neurobiology, economics and psychology. "Thinking, Fast and Slow" goes to the heart of the matter: How aware are we of the invisible forces of brain chemistry, social cues and temperament that determine how we think and act? Has the concept of free will gone out the window?

These books possess a unifying theme: The choices we make in day-to-day life are prompted by impulses lodged deep within the nervous system. Not only are we not masters of our fate; we are captives of biological determinism. Once we enter the portals of the strange neuronal world known as the brain, we discover that — to put the matter plainly — we have no idea what we're doing.

Professor Kahneman breaks down the way we process information into two modes of thinking: System 1 is intuitive, System 2 is logical. System 1 "operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control." We react to faces that we perceive as angry faster than to "happy" faces because they contain a greater possibility of danger. System 2 "allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations." It makes decisions — or thinks it does. We don't notice when a person dressed in a gorilla suit appears in a film of two teams passing basketballs if we've been assigned the job of counting how many times one team passes the ball. We "normalize" irrational data either by organizing it to fit a made-up narrative or by ignoring it altogether.

The effect of these "cognitive biases" can be unsettling: A study of judges in Israel revealed that 65 percent of requests for parole were granted after meals, dropping steadily to zero until the judges' "next feeding." "Thinking, Fast and Slow" isn't prescriptive. Professor Kahneman shows us how our minds work, not how to fiddle with what Gilbert Ryle called the ghost in the machine.

"The Power of Habit" is more proactive. Mr. Duhigg's thesis is that we can't change our habits, we can only acquire new ones. Alcoholics can't stop drinking through willpower alone: they need to alter behavior — going to A.A. meetings instead of bars, for instance — that triggers the impulse to drink. "You have to keep the same cues and rewards as before, and feed the craving by inserting a new routine."

"The Power of Habit" and "Imagine" belong to a genre that has become increasingly conspicuous over the last few years: the hortatory book, armed with highly sophisticated science, that demonstrates how we can achieve our ambitions despite our sensory cluelessness.

Like Timothy D. Wilson's recent how-not-to book, "Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change," a primer for well-intentioned parents, bosses, coaches, teachers, psychologists and others in the life-improvement professions, they're full of stories about people who accomplished amazing things in life by, in effect, rewiring themselves.

Mr. Duhigg recounts the now legendary story of the football coach Tony Dungy's system for reviving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a loser team: teach them not to think. By instilling in his players an "automatic" response to situations encountered on the field, Mr. Dungy "removed the need for decision making." Glance at the outside foot of the lineman to see if he's getting ready to step back… Check the direction of the quarterback's face to see where he's going to throw. Don't react: act. Guess what? The Bucs started to win. (That game, anyway. Then they went back to losing, and he was fired.)

Mr. Lehrer calls this ability to identify and re-program what goes on inside our heads "the science of insight." Our minds are more susceptible to epiphanies when we're taking warm showers, watching Robin Williams do stand-up or walking on the beach. The color blue puts us in a more creative mood than the color red: it stimulates our alpha waves by triggering associations with clear skies and oceans. …

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